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Opera Daily 🎶 — French Opera
This week's Opera Daily features Frederica von Stade singing the role of Charlotte in the French opera Werther by Jules Massenet
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“Va! Laisse couler mes larmes”
Today we’re listening to “Va! Laisse couler mes larmes”, an aria from Act 3 of the French opera Werther (vair-Tair) by Jules Massenet. Frederica von Stade is singing the role of Charlotte (shar-LOT) here and she gives us a window into her character’s struggle with being strong and loyal and being human. Frederica (“Flicka”) and French music are truly a match made in heaven.
🎧 Listening Example (3 minute listen): Mezzo soprano Frederica von Stade singing “Va! Laisse couler mes larmes” from Act 3 of the French opera Werther by Jules Massenet
Werther takes place in Wetzlar, Germany in the late 18th century. Before Charlotte’s mother dies, she promised to help take care of her brothers and sisters, but she meets Werther, a young poet. This is problematic because Charlotte (mezzo-soprano) is expected to do the responsible thing and marry Albert (but her heart is saying something else). Werther (tenor) falls madly in love with the (now) married Charlotte. He obsesses over her, writing her letters constantly. Charlotte tries to convince Werther to forget about her, move on and find another love, but Werther refuses. Charlotte convinces Werther to leave for a while to help him forget about her, but when Werther comes back several months later he is even more in love with Charlotte. He sees that Charlotte loves him, but she can not let herself be with him. It is her final refusal that causes Werther to take his own life.
Mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson shared more about the character of Charlotte back January:
What would you like people to know about Werther, specifically Charlotte?
Werther is a tricky opera for companies to program. It never quite sells great, so it’s not programmed very often. It is an opera without a lot of action but a lot of emotion. So much of the storytelling happens through the internal emotions of the characters....lots of letters! Some people say it’s the greatest opera where little happens. Charlotte is such a beautifully complex young woman. Her internal struggle is heartbreaking, from her deep sense of duty to Albert to her passionate yearning for Werther. She has to grow up so quickly, and she wants to do the right thing, but Werther has stolen her heart, and the more she tries to resist, the more she gets pulled in. Playing Charlotte is an exercise in pacing and restraint so that the moments of her giving in, to her love for Werther are intense and free. We have all experienced moments in our lives when we have a choice to follow our head or our heart...it’s never an easy decision.
This whole scene is heartbreaking and Charlotte’s heart and desire for connection and love is on display. During the aria, she confesses her sadness that she is not married to Werther. She breaks down in tears, saying that her heart is too empty for anything to fill it when he is away.
Oh, I cannot hold back these tears.
It will do me good to cry.
They say that the ones we do not shed fall back inside us and wound the soul.
And over time, drop by drop, they batter, and burn, and so bruise it, with each new hurt the heart grows weaker.
It aches and suffers, in constant pain, becomes exhausted, is overwhelmed, and finally becomes so fragile that it just breaks.
Werther is adapted from the novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It premiered in February of 1892 in German at the Court Opera in Vienna, Austria. It did not premiere in its original language, French, until later that year.
If you want more French opera, we profiled another Massenet opera called Cendrillon (also with Frederica von Stade). It is one of my favorites, and you can read and listen to it here.
Werther’s “Pourquoi me reveiller” is probably one of the most well known aria’s from this opera. While this aria and the character of Werther deserve their own moment, I can’t help but include José Carreras singing this piece. Listen here.
It’s written that Charlotte in the opera is based on the real life crush of Goethe, Charlotte Buff. The movie Young Goethe In Love (Germany, 2010) is about Goethe when he meets Charlotte Buff who is already engaged to be married to someone else.
Thank you for reading (and listening), and feel free to reply with feedback or leave a comment.
PS. If you missed last week’s selection, we featured Jessye Norman on the topic of critics and “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix” from Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila
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